Slye, Maud (1869–1954)

views updated

Slye, Maud (1869–1954)

American pathologist who was one of the first scientists to demonstrate that cancer is inheritable. Born Maud Caroline Slye on February 8, 1869 (some sources erroneously cite 1879), in Minneapolis, Minnesota; died of a heart attack on September 17, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Florence Alden (Wheeler) Slye and James Alvin Slye (a lawyer and writer); attended the University of Chicago; Brown University, B.A., 1899; never married; no children.

Likened to an American Marie Curie , pathologist Maud Slye was among the first scientists to demonstrate that cancer is inheritable. She was born in Minneapolis in 1869, the second child of James Slye, a lawyer, and Florence Wheeler Slye , who were educated and of respectable standing but far from wealthy. Her mother hoped Maud would spend her life in the arts, as a painter or a writer—her father wrote on the side—but she chose to pursue biology, acting on her love of nature. When the family moved to Iowa, the Slye children attended public schools in Des Moines and Marshalltown. After Maud graduated from high school in 1886, she worked briefly as a stenographer before entering the University of Chicago, reportedly with only $40 to her name. She took a full load of courses while working as a secretary to the university's president, which resulted in a nervous breakdown after three years. She then spent some time recovering her health with relatives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, before completing her undergraduate studies at Brown University, where she received a B.A. in 1899.

For six years, Slye taught pedagogy and psychology at Rhode Island State Normal School. In 1908, she accepted the invitation of an old acquaintance and professor at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory to be his graduate assistant in the biology department at the University of Chicago. After briefly studying mice with nervous disorders, she became interested in the inheritance of cancer. Most scientists at the time believed that cancer was spread through a virus, although some had suggested, with little hard evidence, that heredity might be a key factor in the development of the disease. Her supervisor was a proponent of the contagion theory, but Slye nonetheless began performing breeding experiments with her mice to research the heredity hypothesis. She used her own small income to fund these investigations, and is said sometimes to have sacrificed meals in favor of spending her money on feed for the lab mice.

In 1911, the well-endowed Sprague Memorial Institute was set up at the University of Chicago, and upon joining its staff that year Slye was provided with better facilities and substantially more money to conduct her research. Two years later, she presented her first paper to the American Society for Cancer Research, based on studies involving 5,000 mice. In the paper, she theorized that heredity played an important role in susceptibility to cancer and refuted the idea that cancer was a contagious disease. She was appointed director of the Cancer Laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1919, and by 1926 had been promoted to associate professor of pathology, which she remained until her retirement in 1944. In those years, Slye bred, cared for and kept family records on more than 150,000 mice, tracking those which developed cancer and those which did not. A strong proponent of keeping similar records on the human population in America (and, presumably, preventing human breeding when necessary), she firmly believed that such a registry could wipe out cancer. She kept an immaculately clean laboratory and took special care of her mice to prevent

them from contracting other diseases that might skew her results or destroy the population. Her concern for the mice made her so fearful of leaving them in someone else's care that she did not take a vacation in 26 years.

Slye originally theorized that a single recessive gene was responsible for susceptibility to cancer, but she also recognized that gene susceptibility alone could not lead to the development of the disease in a mouse or a human being. The single-gene theory had been debunked by 1936, so Slye revised her original theory to suggest that two genetic factors were responsible—one to determine the type of cancer and the other to determine its location. And although future research proved even her revised theory to be oversimplified to the point of error, Slye's careful, comprehensive studies helped establish the role played by heredity in determining an individual's susceptibility to cancer.

Slye's contributions to cancer research were recognized with a number of honors, including a medal from the American Medical Association (1914), the Ricketts Prize from the University of Chicago (1915), an award from the American Radiological Society (1922), and an honorary doctorate of science from Brown University (1937). She also published two volumes of poetry, Songs and Solaces (1934) and I in the Wind (1936). Maud Slye died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1954.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1940. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Kimberly A. Burton , B.A., M.I.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan